Monday, May 05, 2014

Customer Service, Malawian Style

Today was one of those days; the kind that can only be ameliorated by meeting a good friend directly after work for a stiff drink.  My friend Elizabeth and I decide on a pub, and show up around 5:30. We can’t decide if it’s open or not, as it’s still early for the dinner crowd, but the light is on and the doors are open. We briefly discuss going to the lively bar next door, but commit ourselves to trying something new and seat ourselves at the empty bar.  There was some movement at the back, so we were reasonably assured that the place was staffed.

Sure enough, soon a short, worried looking Malawian barman scurries over.

“I’m sorry, we have no change.” No pleasantries,no hello. Just: We have no change.

“Huh?” I muster. Then it sinks in. “Uh, yeah, that’s ok,” I say. “We’re just here for a drink.”

He looks at me like I’ve got two heads. “But we have no change,” He insists.

“That’s all right, perhaps we have the exact amount.” I smile at him like he’s a small child and  grab my purse, not knowing what exact notes I might be lurking at the bottom.

A strange look passes his face. He tries again.  “But, the manager has all the change, and he is not here.” He looks very uncomfortable.

Elizabeth and I exchange glances, trying not to laugh. His distress over our possible overpayment is thoughtful…and unnecessary. Any other barman would take our money and pocket the difference. It's sweet, but it looks like we’re going to have to do some serious work to get this guy over onto our side. We’ve committed ourselves to this bar, there is no backing down now. The full bar glows like Brigadoon before us. After a beat, Elizabeth proposes an ingenious idea. “How about we order and perhaps by the time the manager gets here there will be change?”

Sadly, this only confuses the poor chap even more. He is clearly in distress. Why won’t these pushy white women go away? Can’t we see that he’s trying to help us but that there is NO CHANGE? He pauses for a moment before mustering his own solution.

“How about you go next door?”

We laugh. Perhaps he’s right, but once plopped down on the bar stool, I’m too tired to move. Plus, now I’m here for the challenge of getting this guy to serve us. Doesn’t he want our money? After much cajoling, we finally get him to give us a menu, where we see the usual: whiskey, gin, vodka, soda water, tonic and sprite or coke. We decide on a gin and tonic.

Magically, Elizabeth has exact change.

The gentleman is visibly relieved…until five minutes later. He comes back with a grave look on his face.
“Madams,” he intones, “We have no tonic.”

“You’re kidding!” Incredulous, I peer behind the bar. “Let me back there, I’ll help you look.” I’m halfway scrambling over the counter, desperate for a buzz, when he pulls out three mixers from the tepid refrigerator. He can make us a gin and sprite, gin and ginger ale or gin and soda water, but no gin and tonic.

“Bloody hell,” mumbles Elizabeth, and I start laughing. It seems we have committed ourselves to an insane asylum. Game as ever, she looks at me and sighs: “Gin and ginger ale?”

“Blech.” I was desperate, but not that desperate.  “I’ll do a vodka and soda.”

Another long conversation ensues wherein Elizabeth tries to ascertain the price for the imported vodka (to ensure we have correct change), we finally get our drinks. They have the largest single pour of vodka I’ve ever seen, but at this point, I feel like I kind of earned it. 

Later, the manager comes in (with change!). He’s a lovely guy, and the staff clearly adore him. Shortly thereafter, a complimentary basket of deliciously buttered popcorn appears. We left a nice tip for hassling the poor guy so much, but still had to laugh. Such a strange juxtaposition from the market guys who will try to get you to pay for anything! At least I can say, he was very thoughtful about our finances, even if he wasn’t the world’s best businessman. No wonder why the bar was empty!

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